Writer and producer Marc Frydman wanted to come up with a script and unconventional filmmaking style that would complement the genre. His plan hinged upon three things: a short shooting schedule, limited locations and, incredibly, a lead actor who could improvise his dialogue. Though risky, he was convinced it could work if the right elements fell into place with Last Seen Alive.
“Like a Rubik’s Cube, I had to line up all the white squares and green squares,” Frydman says. “I was up for the challenge, regardless of the outcome.”
Frydman’s story focused on Will Spann, a man desperate to find his missing wife. Filmmaking heroes like Sidney Lumet had taught him that realism often lends itself to a more immersive movie. “If it could happen to everyone, the premise grabs you right away,” he says.
Fryman’s finished screenplay looked different from every other film he had worked on
The screenplay for Last Seen Alive included scripted dialogue for every actor except the lead. It was also designed to be shot in continuity with the lead actor only seeing a few pages at a time, so he’d never know what might happen next.
“He wrote this script, and it was like a blueprint,” says director Brian Goodman. “We had a lot of faith in each other.”
Frydman and Goodman had worked together before on several films, including What Doesn’t Kill You and Black Butterfly, both directed by Goodman.
“I was thinking Brian would be perfect because this was going to be a very hard movie to do: We’re not gonna have a lot of time, and the prep and the shoot would be very intense,” Frydman says. “And Brian never complains. Never. You know he’s never gonna let you down.”
Actor Gerard Butler (300, Gods of Egypt) signed on to play Will after only seeing 10 pages of the script
“He and I clicked when we met,” Goodman says. “We were both nervous and creatively challenged. We said, ‘We’ll jump into it together.’”
“Gerry was interested right off the bat,” Frydman adds. “He was perfect—he has this physicality and interiority that you can’t really learn. … You have it or you don’t.”
The rest of the cast slowly fell into place, including Jaimie Alexander (Blindspot, Thor), Russell Hornsby (Fences, Lincoln Heights), Ethan Embry (Brotherhood, Grace and Frankie), and Michael Irby (Mayans M.C., Barry).
“You have to get the right players that are willing to play,” Goodman says. “Not everybody’s up for improvising; they want the script and they want rehearsals. And I respect that, but that’s not this. You gotta be ready to have human instincts and responses because Gerry might not say the line that you’re expecting to be said back.”
Weeks of preparation included coming up with strict daily shooting schedules, blocking and rehearsing with the actors (except for Butler, of course) and doing everything possible to make sure the shoot went off without a hitch.
“Prep is the key,” Frydman says. “It’s a lot of conception, it’s a lot of calculating how your days are gonna be set up. But for the actor who walks in, we’re ready to go.”
Goodman, who is also an actor, prioritized making sure the cast had what they needed to do their best work. Like Butler, many of them signed on because they appreciated the trust and freedom this filmmaking style would afford them.
“(Being an actor) became an advantage, because you have to trust them,” Goodman says. “You have to let them know that they’re in good hands, and you have to be open to their ideas.”
“(Brian) has a plan every day, and more importantly, he knows how to explain the plan to actors,” Frydman says. “Actors gravitate to him. He’s very real, and they feel that they are not talking to a Hollywood creature, they’re talking to a guy that became an actor for the right reasons.”
As soon as filming started, it was clear this wasn’t a typical film shoot
The creative team decided they wouldn’t slate each take; instead, they would leave the cameras rolling and “keep swimming,” as Frydman puts it.
“You know what Spencer Tracy used to say: When you’re an actor, you’re paid to wait, not to act,” Frydman says. “There is no wait in this. Basically, the actors work their asses off, and there is not a lot of downtimes.”
Adds Goodman: “It was like, “Shoot! Let’s go!” It was a refreshing, exciting challenge.”
Butler dove right in, eager to improvise and work with the cast and crew. After he was given a rundown of the scene and a general idea of what needed to happen, he immersed himself in the moment.
“He’d read the scene like a mission statement: This is what needs to happen, and you can stitch that together any way you want,” Frydman says. “It’s fascinating to watch, and it makes everyone more on the ball.”
Butler even came up with a flashback scene that appears in the film and gives more context to Will and Lisa’s relationship.
“Gerard Butler is very smart. He’s got good instincts,” Goodman says. “He’s a beautiful guy, and he was very helpful to this process. I applaud him for what he did.”
Editor Julia Wong (X-Men: The Last Stand, Child’s Play) worked with Goodman to edit Last Seen Alive. Though it started as somewhat of an experiment, the cast and creative team are excited by the finished film, which was made to honour the genre and give the actors, particularly Butler, more freedom than they usually experience on a movie set.
“It’s like running a hundred-meter dash with a ball and chain on each foot and holding barbells,” Frydman says of the experience “It’s very difficult, but the challenge is so interesting … and allows the actor and the artist to go for it.”
Adds Goodman: The whole thing was difficult in the way of the fear of the unknown. But we did pull something off. … It was very team-oriented.”